Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shoe banging and soccer pitches in Cuba

Thong throwing has become a sport in some places and maybe the best thong throwers would have landed their target had they been at the Presidential Press Conference where a journalist threw his shoes at President Bush. Of course the point was made despite the clear miss hit (twice) and now everyone is talking about the meaning of the shoe insult. At the end of ‘official’ hostilities images of ceremonial shoe banging of Saddam Hussein and President George Bush were spread worldwide and in Iraq shoe banging is an insult similar to two fingers, elsewhere. The origins of both are quite intriguing. The ‘2-finger salute’, is where the first and second fingers are spread apart and then, with the back of the hand facing the viewer. The hand is then raised towards the sky sometimes fast or slow depending on whether it is done in anger or as a taunt. The ‘Up Yours’ salute is thought to have originated in the 15th century when Welsh archers at the Battle of Agincourt(1415), demonstrated to the French how devastatingly effective they were with their new bow-and-arrow technology. The strong bowmen used the first two fingers to draw the bowstring back before releasing the arrow with pin point accuracy. The French were so intimidated by the power of the Welsh long bow they threatened to amputate string-pulling fingers on any archer caught. In defiance bowmen responded by waving the two fingers in the insulting ‘V salute’ to aggravate their foes. Feet and shoes were imbued with considerable significance in the Middle East and shoe banging holds two meanings depending on whether you are Jewish or Islamic. Traditionally, the Jewish custom, of shoe banging was used to seal a deal like a gable at an auction. In Islamic tradition, culture determines feet occupy the lowest rung in the bodily hierarchy and shoes are considered unclean. Hence it is commonplace to remove shoes before entering a place of worship; the gesture is to maintain the purity of the place of worship. The same custom is extended to entering a private home because the sole of the shoe is considered the most contaminated. To point a shoe at someone or hit them (or their image) demonstrates a deep insult and means to direct impurity and pollution in their direction. The action is not to physically harm the individual but to remind all there is a greater judgment and the object of scorn should suffer the indignity of the most demeaning punishment possible. The shoe as an insult is used in other cultures too for instance in India unpopular politicians are regularly garlanded with shoes and paraded down the streets. The term “Jooté maro!" (hit him with shoes) is common enough phrase.

Shoe banging represents violation and demonstratively shows deep insult. A famous shoe banger in the 60s was Nikita Khrushchev from Russia. Khrushchev came from peasant stock; and possessed a peasant's shrewdness and wit. He had a garrulous, storytelling gift, which gained him a reputation for being earthy. He frequently referred to excrement. He was poorly educated and always intimidated by intellectual superiority. This frequently showed in his uncouth animation during debate. The classic example was shoe banging, when in at the UN General Assembly meeting in October of 1960, Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe against his desk, with indignation. The circumstance, as you will no doubt recall related to photographs implicating Russian “duplicity” in Cuba. A U2 "spy plane" picked up pictures of soccer pitches and at that time soccer was not a game popular with Cubans, which implied the presence of personnel of a soccer loving nation i.e. USSR. Instantly reported across the globe as good copy, Khrushchev shoe-banging episode probably did more to avoid global conflict, than the furious diplomatic arrangements, which were going on as Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off each other. In the West the man became a character. The shoe banging episode did deeply embarrass his Soviet colleagues, which inevitably led to his downfall in 1964. The popularity he had in the west however more than likely saved his life and he spent his remaining years in retirement tending his garden like the Godfather. According to his son, Sergei Khrushchev, his father had small feet (size seven or eight), and when he came from Moscow he was wearing ordinary shoes. New York was hot however so he switched to sandals. He was wearing sandals on the famous shoe banging day but happened to have a spare shoe available to express himself. The shoes in John Hay Library are probably not The Shoes, but a pair that Nikita brought with him to New York but never wore.

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